Book Review

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage

Photo on 30-01-2014 at 16.55 #7

This is a set text for my MA twice over, so this has been touted as a book that is ESPECIALLY good. I went and checked, before typing this, whether or not I can comment on it in a blog, and I can. So I’m going to.

Bad Blood is a memoir by Lorna Sage, who was an academic (a Professor of English Literature no less!), a critic and a reviewer. She was an industry insider – big friends with Angela Carter – and respected and well known within her field. The review quotations in the pre-book bit of the book are from an array of impressive and important sources. It won two major awards, it sold well and, as I mentioned above, is a set text in two modules of my Masters. Bad Blood has been judged to be a good book, a serious book, a successful book and is, undoubtedly an acclaimed book. But why?

To start with, the writing is good, and that’s important. It is neither difficult nor patronising*, it is witty, it is open and it is honest. It ticks all the boxes, I suppose, I look for (stylistically) in what I read.

It is well-structured, too – broadly chronological, but with rather natural-feeling dips backwards and forwards when appropriate: these never jar. It includes extracts from her grandfather’s diaries in the 1930s, which are entertaining. He was a rural vicar who spent most of his time drinking and womanising. Other than being Anglican, he felt very Graham Greene. There is a lot of humour in the book, and a lot of love too – the sad, regretful (but utterly shameless) grandfather teaches Lorna about literature and the value of learning, and it is her desire for education and knowledge – both intellectual and worldly – that drives her through the book. It is a passion, I suppose, for learning and, once she reaches adolescence, for excitement and sex and discovery.

Sage is beautifully human, I suppose; she is bodily and intelligent – she works hard, and she plays hard too. Sage comes across well, as a thoroughly modern person, working hard to achieve what she wants despite the barriers of money, class and teen pregnancy. She is strong-willed, and it is this relentless knowledge of the self that made the book succeed in the way it did. Her ache for and sustained assault on achievement is a recurring contemporary story, but the fact that Sage’s achievement is studying an Arts subject at university level makes her story unique. The narrative is Room At The Top, the American Dream, all those other stories about a rise from poverty to affluence, only here the goal isn’t money, it’s intellectual wealth, spiritual happiness, personal growth. Whatever. A better one; certainly one that writers, academics and literary critics would be likely to respect.**

In terms of content, for me it was a bit Cider with Rosie. Children and the British countryside, though, two things I try to avoid in life and literature. But I can’t really fault it articulately.

Bad Blood is a well-written, well-structured piece about love of learning triumphing over social expectations. It’s a good book, I have to concede that, but that I can cynically explain its reputation means I no longer feel guilty for not being blown away.

A solid read. Solid.


* Which, in my experience, are the two ways academics tend to go…

** I was going to put as an aside, “Except for the Telegraph“, but there is a Telegraph quote on the cover, though nothing from The Spectator or Daily Mail, the other right wing papers.

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